Russia’s military is no stranger to cold weather, and it could be argued that winter has been one of the greatest allies the Russian people have ever known. “General Winter” or “General Frost” has been credited with stopping many an invader including the Swedish invasion of 1707, the French invasion under Napoleon in 1812, the Allied intervention in Russia in 1918-19, and most notably the German invasion in 1941.
Now instead of merely preparing for the extreme cold, the Russian military is embracing it and is reportedly increasing its presence in the Arctic. Moscow has increased its military presence at the Nagurskoye airbase, which is located on the Franz Josef Land archipelago about 600 miles south of the geographic North Pole.
The base, which was first built in the 1950s as a weather station and communications outpost between the Eurasian mainland the North Pole, features a “shamrock-shaped facility” that consists of three large pods extending from a central atrium called the Arctic Trefoil. It is painted in the white-red-blue colors of the Russian national flag.
Other buildings include radar and communications facilities, a weather station, oil storage, hangers, and a construction center.
The area has been home to polar bears, and few other creatures would ever want to make it their home. The Daily Mail newspaper reported that the temperatures plunge to minus 42 Celsius in the winter, while snow only disappears from August to mid-September.
Russia has sought to assert its influence in the region as the shrinking of the polar ice has made it more accessible, even if it remains largely inhospitable to people.
Nagurskoye has been transformed recently, and Russia’s northernmost military base has seen its runway extended – which can allow it to handle all types of aircraft, including its nuclear-capable strategic bombers. The expansion of the facilities coincides with Moscow’s increased exercises over the Polar Regions with its MiG-31 (NATO reporting name “Foxhound”) earlier this year. Russia was truly defining what it meant by “all-weather” fighters after a group of the aircraft entered duty in the Arctic.
Moscow’s expansion of the base is meant to send a clear message that it is preparing to defend its claim on the region, which is rich in natural energy deposits. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has cited estimates that the value of the mineral riches could be worth $30 trillion.
“We hear whining about Russia expanding its military activities in the Arctic,” said the country’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this week. “But everyone knows that it’s our territory, out land. We bear responsibility for the Arctic coast to be safe, and everything our country does there is fully legitimate.”
NATO has expressed concern about Russia’s growing military footprint.
“Increased Russian presence, more Russian bases in the High North, has also triggered the need for more NATO presence, and we have increased our presence there with more naval capabilities, presence in the air, and not least, the importance of protecting transatlantic undersea cables transmitting a lot of data,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
It isn’t just western powers such as the United States, Canada, Denmark, or Norway that Russia could face as a potential adversary in the region. China has also eyed the region in recent years, as it is believed to hold up to one-fourth of the earth’s undiscovered oil and gas. Beijing has already sought to claim the South China Sea as its own but with an increasingly powerful navy; China could be another player that seeks the vast riches the Arctic has to offer.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.